The Accessible Icon Project Revamps Famous Isotype

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Isotypes, as conceived by Otto Neurath, distilled the range of human experience to symbols that easily could be understood by anyone, regardless of native language. The work done by Neurath and his team laid the foundation of contemporary visual communication grounded in pictograms, as seen in wayfinding icons, infographics, and corporate logos. These symbols often blend into our landscapes and psyches to the point that they are no longer noticed, until they are changed.

Accessible Icon design, via The Accessible Icon Project

Accessible Icon design, via The Accessible Icon Project

The Accessible Icon Project has fomented such a change, advocating for an overhaul to the International Symbol of Access, also known as the International Wheelchair Symbol. While no one denies that the recognizable symbol is effective, the Accessible Icon Project team believes that the new design serves as a better representation of individuals with disabilities, namely in how the new design conveys a sense of action and movement.

Sara Hendren, one of the project’s co-founders, was kind enough to answer some questions via email, explaining how her design has gone from a concept to a new iconic symbol currently being introduced in New York City.

Would you describe why you started thinking about changing the familiar wheelchair icon — officially known as the International Symbol of Access?

Hendren: Let me start by saying that I’m someone who works in disability in several capacities, so I’m very much aware that the original ISA is an important icon in disability politics. Its appearance in public space marks its guarantees for accommodations —accommodations that have come from hard-won activist campaigns, all too recently. So I have a sense of history when I see the original image.

Alternative design done by Brendán Murphy in 1994, via Access Symbol

Alternative design done by Brendán Murphy in 1994, via Access Symbol

That said, I started casually collecting different images of the ISA back in 2008-09. I noticed better graphic qualities on the icon at a variety of places, from MoMA to my local Marshall’s store. The line quality was more organic; the body was foregrounded; the entire image conveyed a sense of dynamism in space that is absent in the old symbol. But I also noticed that these newer icons were ultimately few and far between. There are several different versions floating around, but nobody talks about the design qualities of these icons with any deliberation. Their use is up to the whim of the designer at hand.

So I posted a couple of these images on my web site. My collaborator, Brian Glenney, and I were working on a different project together in 2009. When he saw that post, he said: Why don’t we do something? Change it? He has a history in graffiti, so he started us thinking about spray paint, or decals, and then we arrived at stickers.

In one of your blog posts about this project, you raise the idea of “urban editors.” The Accessible Icon Project was borne from a culture-jamming street art approach. As you mention, Glenney came up with the idea of cutting a stencil that conveyed a more active icon, and he also advocated spraying these stencils all over. Is this how the idea caught on? Did you feel that this was the only way to raise awareness about the project?

Hendren: Brian and I had a long debate about what the original action should be. Should we design a sticker to cover the old one, and just plaster it everywhere? Replace the old image in one move? Or somehow show the change, the evolution of an idea? I felt strongly at that time that we should not only make it a street art action, but that our design should show the old image while also showing the new one. I found that, when I talked to people about the new icon we’d designed, the first thing they’d ask was: Wait — what does the old symbol look like? In other words, it was so ubiquitous that they’d never really looked at it. So I felt like just covering the old with the new would be politically invisible.

It would be similarly invisible to go through the “proper channels” at the city level and lobby for a professionalized design change, because it would take the public debate out of the matter. What we’ve been interested in, all along, is the way that the ISA stands for disability accommodations of all kinds, the ways that symbols and icons make meaning. We used the original sticker in a tactical, mildly transgressive way, to get some media coverage for a whole range of issues and the voices of people who don’t often get talked about or heard: How do we build cities, schools, economies that support difference?

In the end, though, there’s been so much interest in a new symbol for practical use that we’ve let the ideas of others lead. We’ve seen that providing a new sign, a new stencil, a new sticker altogether is what people really want—to edit in a legible and literal way.

I also think it’s interesting, more broadly, to consider the ways that we’ll edit cities in the future, rather than strike out and build new ones. I’m in the camp of people who believe in the smashed-together cacophony of cities, ones that evolve and morph and change in subtle, profound ways over time, rather than the planned preciousness of new developments.

Urban editing shows new design on top of old design, via Sara Hendren

Urban editing shows new design on top of old design, via Sara Hendren

How did you get involved with Triangle? The Massachusetts-based organization first used the new icon for its parking spaces but now the new design is being rolled out in New York City. Are you surprised by how quickly your design has been embraced?

Hendren: Jeff Gentry, at Triangle, contacted me after the sticker was covered in the Boston Globe in 2011. Triangle is a progressive non-profit that supports and advocates for people with disabilities in really novel ways: they have an entire video production team, run entirely by people with disabilities from start to finish. They have an innovative jobs development program, a
n in-house self-defense training program, and what may be the country’s only community service organization staffed by young people with disabilities. It’s astounding what they do.

Jeff saw how the icon could be the starting point for conversations at their site, with their funders and partners, and beyond. Brian and I spent a service day at Triangle with some volunteers from one of the big Boston law firms. Normally those volunteers would have done some organizational or clean-up help around the campus, but instead, we painted new stencils on the Triangle parking lot. We all realized then that the new icon could function as a catalyst, a fulcrum, for a host of related conversations.

Gordon College, where Brian is based, really got behind the project and promoted it over the last year. But yes—no one was more surprised than we were about NYC getting on board. It’s pretty thrilling.

Accessible Icon in situ, via Triangle

Accessible Icon in situ, via Triangle

In your words, you spend a lot of time thinking about “art as research.” What was the design process like on this project? Did you spend a lot of time researching Isotype and going through lots of drafts?

We did go through a lot of drafts, and we had help from Tim Ferguson Sauder and Tim Lindgren, graphic designer and instructional designer/web developer, in getting the current icon exactly right.

But I think of art as research in this project in its temporal aspects. It wasn’t our aim to make a new “better” graphic, full stop. There are comparable graphics already out there; this wasn’t a professionalized design project. The work, instead, is a set of queries that took place over time, and in public—I often talk about my disposition as the public amateur. I posted the images for comparison online; we tried out basic iterations; we got a 1.0 conversation starter image and a street art campaign; we got some press, and then the work became a social design project, driven in collaboration with the interests and wishes of others, including, significantly, self-advocates with disabilities. So the real “destination” of the project has been a series of conversations and questions way beyond wheelchair access, parking spaces, or the like. It’s been a research-and-activism initiative grounded in a ubiquitous graphic icon.

What’s your response to the naysayers who cite such an overhaul as a waste of time and resources?

It’s astounding to me that people will still say, in 2013, that it’s “only an image” — when we know that images profoundly shape our cognition every day, all the time. And no one’s ever called for spending money to dig up old signage and replace them with new ones. We think that icons everywhere are an elemental grammar of wayfinding and also part of how we make meaning in the world. The overwhelmingly positive response we’ve gotten from people literally all over the world has made it pretty evident that we’re not alone.

  1. Keep Reading: The International Symbol for Access was recently the answer to a design mystery challenge.

Additional Resources: Interested in Making an Impact With Your Design Work?

  1. Just Design, by Christopher Simmons, profiles socially conscious design projects for critical causes. Get inspired to make a difference through design.

  2. The Design Activist’s Handbook, by Noah Scalin and Michelle Taute, outlines tools and tips for implementing change through your craft.

  3. DOWNLOAD NOW: Get this curated collection of magazine articles about design activism, in this exclusive download “Changing the World with Design.”